Joachim Trier's brilliant Oslo, August 31st opens with a lovely montage of Oslo, Norway showing its quaint cobblestone streets, sidewalks where children are playing, and a captivating view of a nearby lake. As we watch long shots seen in a car ride from the viewpoint of the passengers, we hear voice-overs talking about their memories and impressions of Oslo. Many recollections are good, some are bad, but all are personal and intimate, the stuff of life, not of movies. Based on Pierre Drieu La Rochelle's 1931 novel "Le Feu Follet," Oslo, August 31st takes place in a 24-hour period, following recovering drug addict 34-year-old Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) as he takes on his first job interview in years after being given a one-day release from a state-run rehabilitation center.
All is not going well, however. As Anders explains during a group therapy session, he hasn't felt much of anything since becoming sober. Two weeks away from completing his rehab, in the morning of the interview he fills his pockets with stones and jumps into the water of a lake in an attempt to drown himself. Unsuccessful in his attempt, he must confront his job interview that afternoon as an Editorial Assistant for a publishing company. The interview goes well and Anders responses are articulate and quite insightful and the employer seems impressed. When the applicant is asked to fill in the gaps in his resume for the last five years, however, he is unable to do so, admitting that he was a drug addict, using cocaine, heroin, DMT, and also alcohol, providing details not requested by the interviewer.
Anders sets himself up to fail and, without waiting to see how his past has affected his chances for employment he grabs his resume out of the employer's hand and walks away from the interview. Rather than return to the center immediately, he visits old friends and makes an afternoon date with his sister Nina, but, unwilling to confront the pain in their relationship, sends a surrogate instead. One of the most moving segments of the film is Ander's extended conversation with former close friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), now a Professor of Literature and married with a young child. In a conversation that is devastatingly real, Thomas tells Anders that he would be crushed if Anders did anything stupid and asks how he can support him.
He tells Anders, however, that his parents are selling their home because of his financial debts, a fact that, no matter how true, does not support his friend in regaining his self-image. Later in the conversation, the talk shifts to Thomas' lack of joy in his own relationship as he wonders what happened to the promise of his youth, not a reassuring message for the struggling Anders. When Thomas tells him "It will get better. It will work out." Anders looks at him with a knowing smile and says, "Except it won't." Looking like a somewhat hip, almost tough young professional with an open leather jacket, Anders then walks around the town with a detached look on his face, more of an observer than a participant in the world around him.
Sitting in an open air café watching people pass by and listening to other people's conversations, there is a palpable sense of isolation so deep and so penetrating that it can tear right into the heart of any viewer who has experienced feelings of alienation. Night clubs, parties, and raves occupy Anders as he starts to fall back into old habits. Though he tells a young student that he sleeps with after one of the parties, "Everything will be forgotten," it is obvious that he does not believe it. He desperately tries to contact his ex-girlfriend Iselin in New York, leaving three messages that tell her he has changed and that he still loves her, but his calls are not returned.
Honest, reflective, insightful, and intimate, Oslo, August 31st is a powerful and unforgettable achievement and Lie's performance is towering. Trier does not allow sentimentality to intrude on his character study of a lost soul whose pain cannot be hidden, nor the hurt he has caused others. We can see the kindness in Anders' heart but not the strength, or feelings of self-worth, and we just want to reach out to him to tell him to listen to the words of the poet Rilke, "And if the earthly no longer knows your name, whisper to the silent earth: I'm flowing. To the flashing water say: I am." Sadly, we cannot get through.